by JEFF WINSLOW
The Emerson Quartet is always popular with Chamber Music Northwest audiences, and this year was no exception, with both shows sold out. It’s easy to understand why. They don’t engage in theatrics or other behavior worrisome to CMNW’s core demographic, nor do they play up the darker sides of their repertory, but they do deliver some of the most elegant, lovingly detailed performances around. I caught them on July 11 at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, where they played the first of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s landmark “Haydn” string quartets, K. 387, a late Mozart string quintet (K. 614) with the able partnership of Paul Neubauer’s viola, and Maurice Ravel’s only string quartet.
Mozart’s six “Haydn” quartets are a celebration of the growing friendship between the composer and Joseph Haydn, who established the string quartet in its preeminent position in the world of classical music. They are also an homage to the older composer, one which Mozart, who was capable of tossing off a masterpiece in days, worked on carefully for over three years. The result is one of the pinnacles of the string quartet repertory, and the Emerson was in their element performing the first quartet, sometimes subtitled “Spring.” It flows and bubbles along, allowing listeners to either abandon their cares to it as on a fine spring day, or revel in its abundant compositional subtleties. The group provided all that could be desired for either kind of listening. Its finely-honed sound filled Kaul well, possibly aided by the group adopting soloist positions, all performing standing up except for the cellist.
The quintet was less satisfying, partly because of some slight tuning problems in one violin in the first movement, but more because, despite this being the last major chamber work Mozart wrote, it sounds as if he had no idea that the end was near. Or maybe he was in denial. There are arresting bits of what, among composers, is thought of as profundity, but mostly it seems to have been written for a convivial gathering of friends, during which the taste of the wine was expected to occupy as least as much attention as the music played. Once settled, the Emerson poured out the good stuff in fine style.
I came away from the Ravel quartet hungry also, since the finale, which is uncharacteristically hyperactive, even violent, for Ravel, was played instead with the same careful elegance the Emerson lavished on Mozart. However, the first three movements offered further demonstrations of the group’s mastery. Maybe the energetic plucked textures (pizzicato) of the fast second movement were not as forceful as some might like, but I’ve never heard them so harmonious. The tender, somewhat meandering slow movement held the packed hall as if by a spell all the way through, and the exquisite opening movement was equally exquisitely played. No doubt the Emerson Quartet will continue to sell out CMNW performances for many seasons to come.
The Miró Quartet also plays with superb clarity and attention to detail, as might be expected since their namesake was a painter known for sharply delineated details. I caught them the following weekend at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall in a concert featuring Peter Schickele’s (better known as musical humorist P. D. Q. Bach) brand-new clarinet quintet, Spring Ahead, along with a Haydn quartet masterpiece and Johannes Brahms’ delicious late clarinet quintet. CMNW artistic director David Shifrin joined the Miró for the clarinet works, and seemed for an hour to have turned into a fifth Miró.
Schickele turned 80 the day before, as the same musicians gave the world premiere of his work at Reed College – a fine birthday present for any composer. Commissioned by CMNW, the work itself, especially the first of the five movements, seemed tailor-made for the group, with plenty of intricate give-and-take between the instruments. At the beginning, the clarinet took flight from a nest of harmonious plucked strings, later swooping up, cresting, and gently alighting amidst string arabesques, like a bird threading through the branches of a forest. The clarinet and then the viola hopped around from octave to octave like moles avoiding whacking. Snatches of tunes got boosts from little turning gestures like bits of trills. There wasn’t anything overtly funny, but it seemed obvious Schickele’s long career in musical humor has taught him a thing or two about writing entertaining serious music as well. The rest of the movements weren’t as distinctive, and there didn’t seem to be very strong contrasts in mood anywhere, but the clarinet came back to swoop and crest one last time at the end, alighting perfectly on a delightfully surprising yet satisfying harmony.
Cut Schickele some slack. His work followed Joseph Haydn’s masterly late string quartet, op. 76 no. 2, sometimes styled “Quinten” for his continually creative use of the simple interval of the fifth, familiar from drones in bagpipe and Indian classical music among others. It’s in the melody of the first movement, then in the bass, then running rampant through the middle, not to mention its role in the overall harmonic structure. Haydn had written some 60 string quartets by the time he wrote this one, and if anything was more inventive than ever. The slow movement opens with an extensive plucked passage (pizzicato), making contemporaries’ complaints about Ravel’s and Debussy’s “untraditional” use of pizzicato in their quartets a century later seem like quibbles. The third movement minuet is built on a canon, but a much more intricate one than popularly known examples such as “Three Blind Mice.” The finale’s big finish even sounds like bagpipes have joined in. The Miró Quartet deftly laid the whole work out without allowing themselves to be buffeted much by its many mood swings. It was a tough act to follow.
Brahms also had a lifetime of compositional experience under his (considerable) belt by the time he wrote his clarinet quintet, and his utter mastery glows on every page, no doubt warmed by his new-found love for the solo clarinet sound of Richard Mühlfeld, who almost single-handedly inspired Brahms to keep composing after his valedictory op. 113 choral songs. But besides mastery, the quintet reveals a tenderness, even, one imagines, a vulnerability throughout. There are genial moods here and there, but there seems to be a great deal more wistfulness, and the work ends with an impassioned, even anguished return of first movement material after a series of emotionally and musically contrasting variations on a theme. The opening of that movement can’t even seem to decide whether the work is to be in the nominal home key of B minor or closely related D major, and only resolves the question after a turbulent struggle. (Its development section splits the difference with emotionally contrasting C# minor and Db major subsections.) However, Shifrin and the Miró Quartet, while beautifully joined musically, still seemed to be somewhat back in the world of Haydn. We heard the cool, collected, classic side of Brahms, but not so much his stormier, more anguished moods. Brahms’ contemporaries may have thought of him as a continuation of a classic line from Beethoven, but he was also very much a child of the Romantic 19th century – as was Beethoven for that matter, if somewhat before his time. I missed hearing that.
Considerably more passion was on tap, along with the usual microbrews, at the Alberta Rose Theatre the previous Wednesday evening, when the last generation to be children of the 20th century, as represented by various Protégé Project musicians including the Akropolis Reed Quintet, presented a bracing blast of French music old and young. Joining right in was the “old man,” artistic director Shifrin, whose witty introduction of the Akropolis was the liveliest I’ve ever heard from him. The group played a set of excerpts from a harpsichord suite, “La Triomphante,” by mid 18th-century composer and theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau, arranged for oboe, soprano saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet, and bassoon by Raaf Hekkema. I wouldn’t normally have thought of this as passionate music, but the group, who played from memory while subtly changing relative positions in response to the interplay of the parts, elevated precision to passion with their brilliantly tight performance.
In contrast, passion smolders from nearly every page of Maurice Ravel’s late song cycle Madagascan Songs (Chansons madécasses). The three poems of Évariste de Parny that Ravel set deal with a lover waiting for a tryst, a native angry at the all-too-familiar treatment such folks received at the hands of Europeans, and the sensual pleasures of hearing and seeing women singing and dancing ravishingly on a sultry afternoon. However, it all ends merely with a casual demand for the women to go start fixing dinner.
The first and last songs convey their passion with the sweet harmonies and sinuous melodies one associates with Ravel, but the middle song, “Aoua!” is something else again. Two angry cries are answered by crashing dissonances in the flute, cello and piano, and the subsequent narration rises out of a growling accompaniment that returns again and again to the dissonant interval of a major seventh. It was enough for one audience member at the premiere to protest that he didn’t want to hear such music while France was at war with one of its colonies – Morocco at the time – and walk out.
No one walked out of the Alberta Rose, not least thanks to the toasty warm yet utterly clear voice of Protégé mezzo-soprano Evanna Chiew, which proved to be as well-matched to the work as I guessed in an earlier review. Flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, Protégé cellist Jay Campbell, and Protégé pianist Yevgeny Yontov were well-matched to her voice as well. But I came away feeling they were all holding back a little. Maybe Ravel’s repressed personality suggested a restrained interpretation, or maybe the restricted rehearsal time usually available in a festival such as this discouraged them from really cutting loose for fear of losing track of each other. It was lovely, but there were times it needed to be hair-raising too.
Some wonderfully hair-raising moments stood out in the final work, Olivier Messiaen’s eight-movement Quartet for the End of Time. And they were purely musical ones, not at all dependent on any religious conceits in the form of predictions, made from nearly the time of Christ onward, that have invariably proved to be false. (No doubt, if the human race ever manages to pull the plug on itself, the usual suspects will ignore their predecessors’ long and continuous record of error and crow “we told you so.”) The quartet, especially the solo clarinet movement “Abyss of the Birds,” is practically in Shifrin’s DNA after his many performances of it over the years, and if any of its musicians need to be a total master of their instrument, it’s the clarinetist. Still, it would have been fascinating to hear a gifted protégé partnering with the other three Protégé artists: Nikki Chooi on violin, and Jay Campbell and Yevgeny Yontov again on cello and piano respectively. They weren’t afraid to push the tempos – the fast movements ripped along, and the slow movements seemed hung suspended in space-time. Chooi needed a little more incandescence in the final movement, “Praise to the Immortality of Jesus,” but still poured out a supernaturally moving solo line with Yontov’s sensitive support. The peak emotional experience for me, though, was the climax of the fifth movement, “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus.” Campbell (a Fred Sherry protégé) and Yontov achieved a shattering intensity at the climax even though the critical harmony is only mildly dissonant. They suddenly paused for just the right length, and when they started softly in again, it was with a radiance that made the whole hall seem blessed from above.
In a less exalted way, perhaps, but just as fortunately, CMNW audiences are indeed blessed to be introduced to these up and coming protégé artists. Alumni from past years, including the Dover Quartet and the Jasper Quartet, were on hand again this season, and I hope this becomes standard procedure, so there will be no loss in performance quality even as the well-loved veteran masters eventually retire. So far, Club Concerts such as this one have had more success introducing the usual older CMNW audiences to the pleasures of alternative venues such as the Alberta Rose, but with any luck a younger audience will eventually be drawn in as well.
Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers.
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